by Ann Y. K. Choi
I seem to be finding it harder and harder to give an author the benefit of the doubt while reading, and I think it’s becoming a problem. The realization came partway through Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety after reading something particularly unsubtle or repetitive and putting the book down, likely more forcibly than was necessary, slightly perturbed at the lack of respect I was being given as a reader. But I had to sit back and consider it further. This is Choi’s debut, and, as such, while it’s possible that she made the conscious choice to do things in a way I don’t find particularly compelling, it’s more likely that inexperience framed the writing, that she thought things had to be written in a certain way to make the story apparent to her readers. And I suppose I can respect that enough to soften my crusty heart at least a little.
Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety is a coming-of-age story following Mary, a Korean immigrant living in 1980s Toronto. The majority of the story looks at her love life, how she tries to gain the attention of her English teacher––her secret crush––while trying to come to terms with the affections of a traditional Korean suitor. But the book also delves into the weight of burdens and expectations thrust upon individuals coming from lower-class, minority backgrounds trying to make a life for themselves and their families, largely explored through Mary’s emotionally-muted relationship with her family.
I think the main source of my dissatisfaction for Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety is the opposite of my complaint about Stephen Markley’s Ohio: I wanted more. We frequently get bombarded with background and exposition without approaching anything resembling a forward-moving plot, and then something violent or traumatic abruptly happens. These moments feel abrupt because they aren’t always effectively set up, they lack the vibrant imagery to come alive when they occur, and we’re quickly finished with them, stepping back into exposition. We move away from these passages without further building toward a sturdy or coherent narrative, and it all left me stumbling to decipher the point of it all. Is it simply to show us how hard immigrants have it? Was the intention more to explore the simple, romantic aspects of the story, and the cultural or violent aspects were added to make it more meaningful? Without a compelling narrative holding things together from the centre, the rest isn’t enough. Did Choi mean for this to be a rudimentary lesson of Korean culture directed at Canadians? In all honesty, I probably found the passages explaining Korean practices, beliefs, and traditions to be the most enjoyable in the book, probably because I knew so little about them going in, and it was all told to me in a way that was interesting and accessible. So I think the two lessons I came out of this book with were that Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety likely wasn’t the book for me, and that I probably need to pick up some dense non-fiction on the history and culture of the Korean peninsula.